Sunday, November 9, 2003

A parable of the bad shepherd at Good Shepherd

Peter Bronson

Some houses are built on solid rock. Some sink their foundations in shifting sand. Right now, some members of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Symmes Township feel like their house of the Lord is sinking in mud.

The Rev. Thomas Axe, pastor for nine years, resigned last weekend and admitted that he has been using a church discretionary fund for his own personal gain.

Good Shepherd is the largest parish in a region that's as Catholic as a Hail Mary. The congregation of 12,000 is so big, Hamilton County Sheriff's deputies direct traffic on Kemper Road to untangle four Sunday services.

Good Shepherd is wealthy enough to absorb the loss, described by a church official as "what most people would call substantial." But it won't be as easy to shrug off the betrayal by a dishonest priest. Church members say it's tearing the church apart.

"I was horrified," said Leslie Hershberger of Symmes Township, who has been a member for 29 years. On Sunday, Axe discussed his health problems and said he was resigning because of high blood pressure. His apology for misusing church funds was "foggy and nebulous," Hershberger said.

"I walked out of the service before it was over because the people there gave him a standing ovation. Those people did not know what was going on. They were deceived."

Scott Mussari, director of educational services, said he was shocked along with the rest of the church. "Some are denying it, some are very angry and some are very hurt," he said.

Good Shepherd is working hard to get the truth out in the open, Mussari said, but there is no official report on the amount taken. "It's not clear cut. It could extend beyond the (one year) audit period."

Criminal charges are not likely, said Archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco. But, "Whatever the amount is, he is going to pay it back."

Hershberger and Mussari both said Axe has reopened wounds from sex abuse scandals that have rattled the Catholic Church locally and nationwide.

Hershberger said she began investigating rumors about Axe and sent e-mails to the congregation about it because, "I had little faith the truth would come out." The staff is doing all it can, she said, "But I have no faith in the Archdiocese that things will be dealt with openly."

Andriacco said that's not fair. "It was the Archdiocese that ordered the audit and made the results available."

All churches have had scandals and disputes since Paul accused Peter of preaching hooey to the gentiles. There's nothing so un-Christian as a church battle. Most churches could teach the CIA a thing or two about keeping secrets.

But the Catholic Church has a special problem, Hershberger said. "The structure of our church does not lend itself to the laity having a voice."

"We are the church - the hierarchical structure that disappoints us is not the church."

The parable in Mathew says the wise man builds on solid rock, while the fool who ignores God builds on sand - and his house comes crashing down.

"Look at what you have your faith based in," Mussari said. "It needs to be based in God, in Christ."

Not in sand.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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